Dial Up For The Latest Election News

 

Keystone Telephone Company’s Main Exchange at 2nd and Sansom Streets in 1904. | Photo: Philly & Stuff

A trial carried out by the Keystone Telephone Company of Philadelphia in partnership with the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph offered customers a telecommunications-based news service, the Evening Telegraph Information Bureau. This combined print and electronic news service debuted in 1904 as the Presidential election that year allowed the new Information Bureau to test its service. Keystone operators answered questions relative to the election using information provided by reporters for the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph.

As legacy press institutions and new media ventures experiment with the delivery of news in the present-day we’re reminded of this early experiment.

A daily afternoon paper, the Evening Telegraph, first went to print on January 4, 1864 as a competitor to the Philadelphia Daily Evening Bulletin, the city’s only afternoon newspaper. In a journalism innovation that anticipated the reblogging format, the Evening Telegraph printed editorials from leading papers of New York, Chicago, and other cities. Evening Telegraph editors called the feature the “Spirit of the Press.” In 1866, the Evening Telegraph writers kept close contact with the headquarters of a local political convention that supported President Andrew Johnson and used the telegraph to transmit convention proceedings to the public.

The Philadelphia Evening Telegraph at the Lincoln Building on South Broad Street. A precursor to the electronic news ticker, a collection of chalkboards to the right of the office entrance, keeps passerby abreast of the day’s top stories. | Photo: PhillyHistory.org

Before utilities were consolidated, the Keystone Telephone Company was incorporated in 1900 to compete with Bell Telephone Company. As a result of Keystone’s competition with Bell, Philadelphia had two independent telephone systems, along with their separate wires and exchanges, during first half of the 20th century. Keystone catered primarily to business customers, which is why most city businesses maintained two telephones and advertised two different phone numbers. Keystone also handled municipal, police, and fire communications; for years, city workers called each other on “the Keystone.” All this made Philadelphia the last major city in the United States with competing phone companies.

The number of the Evening Telegraph Information Bureau was 1800 on the Keystone. Forty operators staffed the service. News bulletins were received over special wires from the office of the Evening Telegraph, which placed its entire newsgathering facilities at Keystone’s disposal. The bulletins were written in duplicate, with one copy going directly to the transmission circuit’s operator and the other copy going to typewriters for duplication.

Keystone apparatus employed to deliver election news via the Evening Telegraph Information Bureau. Image: Philly & Stuff

When a subscriber called in for election news, he was asked whether he was inquiring about “special” or “general” returns. If special returns were desired, then a connection was made to the Information Bureau, where operators would answer specific questions relating to the election. If general returns were desired, the subscriber was plugged into a multiple jack connected to an election returns circuit and left there as long as the subscriber kept his telephone off the hook.

Compared to the complicated circuits and apparatuses used by other telephone companies, Keystone’s methods produced a service that was quicker and better. The Information Bureau distributed election returns so efficiently that subscribers knew the results ahead of others relying on other news agencies. In addition to lines in Philadelphia, connections were made on the same circuit to Wilmington, Delaware, Trenton and Atlantic City, New Jersey, and intermediate towns over Keystone wires.

The Information Bureau even employed an early predecessor of MUZAK to keep subscribers occupied while they listened for returns. A phonograph horn and a large Victor record player was used to deliver prerecorded music over the circuits.

The Evening Telegraph also supplied election returns to twelve theaters in the city, as well as several large hotels. At the same time, election news was displayed on large canvas boards at seven important points throughout Philadelphia.

A manhole cover of Keystone Telephone Company of Philadelphia, still in service today in Northern Liberties. | Photo: Harry Kyriakodis

Keystone’s experiment was a clear success, as it was estimated that some 75,000 Information Bureau calls were made and answered over Keystone lines during the election of 1904. This did not include out-of-town service or special calls for news other than election news.

Alas, a wide variety of additional uses for the service, including job postings and lost and found notices, suggested by the Evening Telegraph Information Bureau never came to be. When it ended the experiment, the publisher of the Evening Telegraph gave no reason. Perhaps the limitations of early electronic technology, coupled with the need for a small army of human operators, signaled the early end.

The Evening Telegraph ceased publication on June 28, 1918, after Cyrus Curtis purchased the paper and merged it with his own newspaper, the Evening Public Ledger. Years later, when Keystone was finally absorbed by Bell Telephone in 1945, it was one of Bell’s last competitors in the nation. You can still spot the company’s manhole covers that bear the acronym “KTCo.”

 

About the author

Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011), Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2700 titles new and old.

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2 Comments


  1. There are Keystone Telephone manholes in Spring Garden too.

  2. Where the Lincoln Building (pictured) was, is now One South Broad Street, built as the Lincoln Liberty Building in 1932.

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